The Nightshirt Sightings, Portents, Forebodings, Suspicions

Altered States of Reading (5): Kirk Allen of Barsoom


What could any Other know of the up-and-out? What Other could look at the biting acid beauty of the stars in open space? What could they tell of the great pain, which started quietly in the marrow, like an ache, and proceeded by the fatigue and nausea of each separate nerve cell, brain cell, touchpoint in the body, until life itself became a terrible aching hunger for silence and for death? – Cordwainer Smith, “Scanners Live in Vain”

Central to Harold Bloom’s theory of poetic/literary revisionism is the precarious artistic ego, which feels threatened by a brilliant predecessor. But even though the Freudian paradigm it is based on (and pretty much all of Western culture) insists that good health means maintaining intact ego boundaries, the ego is actually something many souls are capable of setting aside in experiences of higher union or cosmic consciousness. These ruptures are central in the history of religions, so why not other domains like writing (and reading)? When the ego ruptures, the negative aspects of the Real and the pain of jouissance flip or transform over into a kind of bliss and inspiration that may feel like (and may indeed be—we should remain open-minded) the channeling or downloading of information from some alien source. I described this for instance in the case of Allen Ginsberg, who experienced his ecstatic experience in college as a transmission directly from the mystical artist/poet William Blake.

The creative and the mystical or paranormal (or some indeterminate category where it is hard to tell what is really going on) is some kind of universal nexus in the domain of cultural creativity.

Jeffrey Kripal’s work (especially Mutants and Mystics) provides a good starting place for thinking about this kind of paranormal/mystical transmission in the world of literature, especially imaginative literature. Kripal uses the term “imaginal”—a word introduced by Victorian paranormal researcher Frederic Myers but made more famous by Islamist Henri Corbin—to talk about this nexus. In an a lecture that I can no longer locate on YouTube, Kripal describes a daisy chain of influence in which sci-fi and comic book writers draw on culturally-framed anomalous experiences for their art, which then shapes the anomalous experiences of their readers, which feeds back into art and re-shapes cultural framings of the paranormal, and so on—what he calls “the fantastic loop between consciousness and culture.”

I can think of no better example of such a fantastic loop than the famous case study “Kirk Allen” in Robert M. Lindner’s 1955 pop-psychiatry memoir The Fifty Minute Hour. This young man, described as a brilliant scientist working on a secret government project during the war (implicitly the Manhattan Project, which was surely a misdirection to disguise the subject’s true identity), was referred to Lindner in Baltimore because he was spending less and less time in actual reality and more and more time in an imaginary world that, it turned out, was based on an unnamed multi-volume pulp sci-fi epic popular at the time. Lindner describes how Mr. Allen, out of his obsession with this alien world and his confused belief that it was actually about him, had, after he got to the end of his “biography,” continued writing “his” story and (to do the necessary research) habitually visited this other planet in a sort of dissociative state.

The doctor was stymied at first, because there seemed to be no reason for his clearly bonkers subject to stay in the real world—there were so many fascinating rewards in that other one, where he was a heroic ruler, married to a beautiful princess, etc. Thus there was nothing to induce him to see real reality for what it was. Lindner finally hit upon a novel therapeutic strategy: By entering the subject’s fantasy himself, taking an equally obsessive interest in it and, in the process, holding an uncomfortable mirror up to his patient’s behavior, perhaps he could gradually loosen its hold over the young man.

So he did … and it worked. And in what is surely one of the most interesting instances of psychotherapeutic countertransferrence ever documented, the doctor successfully got his patient to abandon his alternate reality, seeing it as false and pointless, but in the process developed his own deepening fascination and near-obsession with the interplanetary empire where his patient had been spending so much time. In the end, Allen breaks the spell for Lindner by admitting he made the whole thing up, although it’s unclear what he really believed earlier on.

In his book The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan used this episode as a touchstone for thinking about supposed alien abductions as a kind of folie-a-deux between abductee and researcher: The abductee seduces the researcher into an alternate (and in Sagan’s mind, clearly deluded) reality or belief system, but the researcher then takes the ball and elaborates and deepens this new reality. Sagan thinks that Allen did Lindner a huge favor in the end, effectively rescuing the psychiatrist (who interestingly was an honorary fellow of the Fortean Society before his early death in 1956) from the fate of John Mack, whose reputation was damaged by credulity in a phenomenon some of his subjects too admitted to making up.

paullinebargerBased on the disguised description Lindner provides, it has been generally assumed that the sci-fi saga that obsessed and literally captivated his patient were Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories about the Martian kingdom of Barsoom, which were first published in the pulps in 1912 and have remained popular to this day. But considerably adding to the interest and significance of Kirk Allen’s Martian adventures is his likely (although never conclusively proved) real identity. He is widely believed to have been, in actuality, the young Paul Linebarger, better known to generations of science fiction fans as Cordwainer Smith—one of the most interesting voices of mid-century sci-fi and a profound inspiration on younger writers like Ursula K. LeGuin. (And if his pictures are anything to go by, he was also about the least John Carter-ish person I could possibly imagine.)

At the probable time of the therapeutic relationship described by Lindner, Lineberger’s day job was as a prominent government scientist, a specialist in psychological warfare working for the Pentagon; he had had an unusual upbringing in the Far East with somewhat close correspondences to what Lindner described for Kirk Allen. A psychologist named Alan C. Elms has written numerous blog posts and articles on Linebarger and evidently has done extensive research toward a definitive biography, and he has concluded that Linebarger indeed was probably Allen. It may make some sense of the truly far-out imagination of the writer known for his elegaic future histories of The Instrumentality of Mankind that he could have cut his chops writing excessive notes elaborating Burroughs’ elaborately envisioned alien empire.

Astral Travels

Assuming Kirk Allen was indeed Paul Linebarger/Cordwainer Smith, what makes the case triply interesting to me is the method of his fugue travels to this imagined/embellished alternate reality and how they matched the mode of travel used by his fictional alter ego.

frazettabarsoom2At the beginning of Burroughs’ Mars saga, in what was eventually published in book form in 1917 as A Princess of Mars, we are introduced to the series’ hero John Carter. In that first novel, Carter begins as a Civil War veteran prospecting with a compatriot in Arizona; after his companion is killed by Indians, Carter takes refuge in a cave, where he falls asleep and experiences the classic symptoms of sleep paralysis: He awakens but finds his body frozen, hearing a noisy presence behind him that he cannot see. Eventually he gains use of his body, but finds that it is merely his astral body—his physical body is still lying on the cave floor.

In his astral body, Carter goes to the front of the cave, where he sees Mars on the horizon—as a warrior, it is his personal star—and he focuses his attention and will upon it: “I closed my eyes, stretched out my arms toward the god of my vocation and felt myself drawn with the suddenness of thought through the trackless immensity of space.” Through many adventures over ten years while his Earth body slumbers in the Arizona cave, the Martian avatar of John Carter, after awakening in Barsoom, marries a princess and eventually becomes its ruler.

According to Chris Knowles (in Our Gods Wear Spandex), this detail of astral projection (as well as numerous other motifs in Burroughs’ work) betray a likely familiarity with Theosophy, which made a big deal of this exact mode of locomotion across space. Writers on the subject frequently noted astral projection’s continuity with what was then called “catalepsy”—i.e., waking up paralyzed, experiencing vibrations and frightening noises, and only with difficulty separating the astral body from the physical, just as Burroughs describes. Otherwise, Burroughs would have had to have a direct personal experience with journeying out of his body, as his account of the experience is highly “realistic,” as anyone who has suffered sleep paralysis and its occasional out-of-body sequelae knows. Also, traveling etherically or astrally is described in all the literature on the subject as a simple matter of willing one’s astral body to the location desired.

Crucially, this same method is followed by Lindner’s patient Kirk Allen in the dissociative states that led him to be referred for psychiatric help. Allen describes to the doctor how, when he got to the end of the series of novels—which had essentially (he thought) been describing his own life—he went ahead and began writing the continuation of his interplanetary life story. It started as a vivid anamnesis, a method he says he developed of distinguishing imagination and recall—literally “remembering” facts of his alter-ego’s ongoing biography as though they were his own memories. But at one point, while working on a map of the distant empire he ruled, he found himself unable to remember a significant detail from a photograph taken on one of his adventures but filed away (he knew) in a locked room inside his palace on the distant planet. He felt a sense of frustration that he couldn’t remember it accurately.

“I thought of those blasted photographs stuck away there in a place no one but I could get to. I wracked my brains trying to recall the landscape I had flown over, and the pictures I had glanced at casually before putting them away. No use. I was furious. I cursed myself for not looking at them more closely when I had them. And then I thought: ‘If only … if only I were there, right now, I would go directly to those files and get those pictures!”
“No sooner had I given voice to this thought than my whole being seemed to respond with a resounding ‘Why not?’—and in that same moment I was there.”

He describes how, finding himself fully within the body of his alter ego, he rose and went to the secret room in his palace and looked at the pictures he had been remembering.

“It was over in a matter of minutes, and I was again at the drawing board—the self you see here. But I knew the experience was real; and to prove it I now had a vivid recollection of the photographs, could see them as clearly as if they were still in my hands, and had no trouble at all completing the map.
“You can imagine how this experience affected me. I was stunned by it, shaken to the core, but excited as I had never been. In some way I could not comprehend, by merely desiring to do so, I had crossed the immensities of Space, broken out of Time, and merged with—literally become—that distant and future self whose life I had until now been remembering. Don’t ask me to explain. I can’t, although God knows I’ve tried! Have I discovered the secret of teleportation? Do I have some special psychic equipment? Some unique organ or what Charles Fort called a ‘wild talent’? Damned if I know!”

whelanfightingmanNote that “immensity of space” is the phrase used by Burroughs too to describe the psychic crossing. Here again, the method as well as the strong emotions coming with it strongly resemble accounts from psychic research of astral travel/OOBEs—specifically the astonished excitement—as well as the sense of “verification” that it brought him. In this case, of course, there is little possible or plausible objectivity to this verification, since he was traveling to a place we are to assume never existed but in the pages of Burroughs’ novels. Or did his obsession create a kind of tulpa of Barsoom?

The Fractal Geometry of Paul Linebarger

If we are not enough dizzied by the spirals of alter-egos and pseudonyms in Paul Linebarger’s (probable) life story—Linebarger believing himself to be John Carter of Mars and disguised by his therapist as Kirk Allen, ultimately to adopt the pen name Cordwainer Smith—there is also here a dizzying recursiveness of the mode of travel between real and imaginal and fictive worlds that is layer- or onion-like: a fractal geometry of reading and writing, imagination and anamnesis, influences and inspirations and revision and re/unnaming. What (the f***) are we to make of this? Is something trying to hide? Or is something trying to be born?

frazettabarsoom1It does seem like Linebarger/Smith/Allen had a lot he felt he needed to hide. Besides his constant astral projecting into a fictional universe, he also appears to have had sexual hangups and gender quirks that his era was not ready for. According to Elms (in an interesting article in the journal Science Fiction Studies called “Building Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”), Linebarger alienated his first wife by assuming a female alter-ego in some of his early writing and by cross-dressing in her presence. Nothing like this appears in Lindner’s chapter on Kirk Allen, but Lindner does interpret his divorce from reality as a defense against normative sexuality in the aftermath of an adolescent semi-trauma of being used sexually by an older woman. Lindner reports that his patient had had no further sexual experiences since adolescence and that on one occasion he astrally projected to his distant planet to avoid a sexual encounter with a female scientist colleague he had been platonically dating.

Linebarger’s fiction does seem to me to be the work of a misfit very like the young Kirk Allen, comfortable with ideas and books and cats and alien cultures … and talking cats … but totally ill at ease in his own skin. For instance, his 1945 story “Scanners Live in Vain” (which would have been written not too many years after his therapy with Lindner, if he was indeed Kirk Allen) is about star pilots who endure the agony of space by severing all contact with their bodies, living like numb automata:

“The brain is cut from the heart, the lungs. The brain is cut from the ears, the nose. The brain is cut from the mouth, the belly. The brain is cut from desire, and pain. The brain is cut from the world. Save for the eyes.”

The button-down era when Kirk Allen visited Lindner was light years distant from our world of SF fandom, with its exuberant embrace of creative rewriting in the form of fanfic, as well as various forms of online and real-world role-play. At the time, the young man’s active fantasy life and lifestyle could only have been seen as full-on nuts, and Lindner is not at all embarrassed to use terms like “insane” and “mad” when describing him. The lack of any accepted cultural form or idiom for expressing his identification with a fictional (super)hero ensured that his ecstasies or reveries (or whatever we want to call them) remained an embarrassing private pathology whose intrusion on his professional or romantic/sexual life could only be damaging. Perhaps some future Foucault of the mystical could tell us whether this medicalized repression of Linebarger’s creative relationship to Burroughs’ fiction was actually ‘productive’ of something in the way of sexual desire, creative verve, or even psychical ability. Might the non-social-acceptability of his obsessions have facilitated some kind of psychic or mystical wild talent that today’s slightly more liberal atmosphere would have the effect of neutralizing?

Fitting in to one’s society is an important part of happiness, so Kirk Allen’s astral traveling to the self-created tulpa of Barsoom was certainly an impediment to his life. In Lacanian terms, his literary-imaginative jouissance had to be curtailed, subjected to the sociable logic of the pleasure principle, to restore him to health. But while we do get the sense that something in him was indeed cured, freed to progress in a more “normative” (in I suppose a good way) direction—which would enable him to thrive, have a family, pursue a writing career, etc.—one cannot read Lindner’s account nowadays and not feel that something extraordinary may have been killed in the process. We’ll never know if Lindner’s unorthodox treatment enabled the subsequent brilliant (but still too-obscure) career of Linebarger/Smith or inhibited it, and what other possibilities (or wild talents) it may have curtailed or redirected, for better or worse. Had Linebarger/Smith been able to consult a priest or a shaman instead of being referred to a psychiatrist for his habit of astral traveling to Barsoom, his life and his creativity may have turned out very differently.

frazettabarsoom4I do think it may be significant that Linebarger’s stories (as Cordwainer Smith) are set during or in the immediate aftermath of a milliennia-long period of Galactic peace—really, crushing bland conformity and a despiriting absence of danger and illness—under the “benevolent” totalitarian control of “The Instrumentality of Mankind.” I wonder if, like many creative spirits, Linebarger linked his muse to his psychic pain or ‘abnormality’ and thus had an ambivalent attitude to the psychotherapeutic cure(s) that had rectified and normalized his existence.

Whatever the case, the story of Linebarger/Allen is a complex maze of hidden and deferred identities, transferrences and countertransferrences, and redirected/sublimated sexuality. There is something powerful at work here, some model of the intersections of psychosexual exploration and creativity and mysticism and popular culture that relates to but also goes way beyond Bloom’s Gnostic/Freudian theory of misreading. All I know is, there is so much more I want to know about Paul Linebarger. On his blog, Elms promises he is writing a biography, although it appears it has been imminent for over a decade. I know too well how those types of projects go…

The Martian Imaginal

We can fit the curious case of Kirk Allen/Paul Linebarger within a long, fascinating, bizarre history of psychic engagement with the Red Planet (or the “Martian imaginal”). Books have been written on Mars’s place in our collective fantasies and in popular culture. A few key points include Helene Smith’s mediumistic communication with that planet in the late 19th century, described in Pierre Flournoy’s book From India to the Planet Mars. In turn-of-the-century sci-fi, there was, apart from Burroughs’ novels, also obviously H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, which later intruded on everyday reality through Orson Welles famously realistic radio adaptation.

frazettaapesThen after Kirk Allen, there was comic artist Jack Kirby’s eerily prophetic anticipation of the “face on Mars” in a 1959 comic book, 17 years before the Viking probe photographed such an object. Later, thanks to Sagan, Mars played an arguably decisive role in galvanizing public attitudes toward nuclear weapons in the last decade of the Cold War, as its dust storms provided the astronomer with his idea and model of “nuclear winter.” Anomalists continue to speculate about the existence of an ancient civilization that destroyed itself or was destroyed in Mars’s watery past. Among the planets of our solar system, Mars is uniquely not only a mirror but, arguably, a psychic player in our culture and history.

But more to my point, rather than trying to erase and rewrite his predecessor Burroughs’ engagement with that planet, the young Linebarger seems to have been happy inhabiting it, and evidently was only driven to creatively elaborate or embellish it because it ended too soon, before his “biography” was complete. Thus, to what extent does “anxiety of influence” really apply here? There is no way of answering that for certain without seeing the notes he created (and that Lindner himself got lost in). But Kripal’s picture of “fantastic loops” seems more apt: It is not simply the anxious creative genius that is wrestling with and distorting his/her predecessors; it is cultural forms, created (imperfectly) out of remarkable personal experiences—and also shaped and constrained by countless other cultural forces and semiotic systems—that distort or twist some pure current, which a budding artist was really trying to do justice to and honor even though he was an imperfect vessel in an imperfect world.

In other words, I see Kirk Allen/Paul Linebarger as genuinely trying to channel something that does not belong to him, and to actually get it right, and attempting in various ways to actually efface his ego in the process. Kripal has noted that mystical and psychic phenomena like clairvoyance and precognition are intimately connected to writing. The case of Kirk Allen, like that of Allen Ginsberg, suggests it’s clearly also connected to “spirit possession” in some, perhaps not completely literal, sense.

The creative and the mystical or paranormal (or some indeterminate category where it is hard to tell what is really going on) is some kind of universal nexus in the domain of cultural creativity, and Bloom’s “revisionism” maps just one small segment of a much wider and more interesting spectrum of creative (to put it mildly) reader response.



I am a science writer and armchair Fortean based in Washington, DC. Write to me at eric.wargo [at]

20 Responses to “Altered States of Reading (5): Kirk Allen of Barsoom”

  • Eric, I really appreciate this entry. I read the 2013 piece on Linebarger/Smith by Ted Giao in *The Atlantic*, and that prompted me to pull my old copy of *The Best of Cordwainer Smith* (1975. Ed. J.J. Pierce. Science Fiction Book Club)down from the shelf and read through all of those stories (it overlaps, but not completely, with the 1985 collection *The Instrumentality of Mankind*).

    I had strong impressions of those stories from much more useful readings, and I was pleased to find out that I still thought those stories, written between 1950 and 1966, were strong, strong, strong, both in terms of ideas and language — and humanity.

    According to the prefaratory note to *The Best of* by J.J. Pierce, Linebarger was born in Milwaukee in 1913, but grew up in China, Japan, France, and Germany. His a father was a financier of the 1911 Chinese revolution, and Linebarger was the godson of Sun Yat Sen, who gave Linebarger the name “Lin Bah Loh,” or “Forest of Incandescent Bliss”. He spent WWII in Chungking (sic) as a Lieutenant and finished up a Major, wrote an important book, *Psychological Warfare,* and remained a big deal in foreign policy circles, including being an adviser to JFK. Pierce’s notes indicate that he was a behind-the-scenes international bad-ass for pretty much his whole life.

    Interestingly, in terms of the gender-fluidity, while he was in China during the war, he wrote two “psychological” novels which were written from the perspective of female characters. (All this material from Pierce, 1975, pp. 1-5).

    I completely agree that Linebarger/Smith is under-appreciated. Earlier, outside, reading this post on my Kindle, it occurred to me that if you wanted to “cross” metaphors based on the “opera” in “space opera” (which Smith certainly was writing!), then Smith would be on a level with Giaccomo Puccini. I thought this before I re-read the intro notes to “Best of” and was reminded just how much of a sinologist Smith was; Puccini’s masterpiece *Turandot* famously being a musically transitional (that is, a leap forward in “style” for opera) story about China (and hands-down my favorite opera).

    I have to say, I come away from this brief re-reading of his biographical notes being skeptical of just how closely Lindner’s description of “Kirk Allen” actually hewed to Linebarger’s presentation to Lindner (assuming that Linebarger really did for the basis for “Kirk Allen,” which I’m not disputing). For one thing, it apparently leaves out or ignores the depth provided by Linebarger’s international upbringing and early functionality at high levels (Linebarger earned a Ph.D. in political science, focused on China, from Johns Hopkins at 23) and his high-functioning throughout his life.

    Rather than concluding that Lindner was shooting straight about having “fixed” Allen (and thus perhaps stunting some nascent new creativity), I think it’s almost equally as likely to conclude that Linebarger somehow successfully “integrated” and “fired” Lindner by saying “I made it all up.” Maybe he read Henry Murray.

    Who’s to say that Allen/Linebarger, with some new-found confidence (I mean, the guy wrote a job description for the army that only he could fill, spent WWII in China and wrote a seminal book on psy-ops that is still considered a classic – Pierce ’75), said “to hell with this” to Lindner’s ‘therapy’, and somehow kept on practicing something like “active imagination” (as Tolkien apparently also did in coming up with his opus – can’t remember whether I read that first in your essays, Gordon White’s, or Chris Knowles’) and go on to do the things he did? He was a significant international player, and I would argue that his literary output was * extremely * * powerful * .

    Interestingly, in terms of Linebarger’s early science-fictional influences, Pierce mentions Verne, Wells, Doyle, and some to-us-obscure Germans – but not Burroughs.

  • Thanks, Ahck. I agree with you in being suspicious of Lindner’s narrative. I strongly suspect a lot of fudging and liberty-taking on his part, for the sake of telling a good story.

    I’ve always appreciated Linebarger/Smith’s humanity too — that’s a good way of putting his appeal. I love his imagination and use of language to build a world, although I can’t honestly say I “enjoy” his stories, for the most part. All I’ve read are what was collected in a late-1990s collection called The Rediscovery of Man. But he’s the kind of writer I’d love to have been able to know personally and have drinks with at the end of the day. He reminds me of a certain “type” of civil servant you encounter a lot in DC, geeky bureaucrats by day but with a rich (but still geeky) inner life.

    I bought a copy of Psychological Warfare hoping that it would open up all kinds of interesting keys into Linebarger’s psyche and career, but it actually seems really dull: using leaflets to work on the enemy’s psyche, etc. Nothing more nefarious (at least from my brief thumb-through).


  • It’s been two years and I don’t remember specifics, but one thing that struck me about the stories was that he was exploring themes that are still being worked in current science fiction.

    I think his times in China must have influenced him pretty deeply. It clearly shows up in his ‘instrumentality’ stories. Godson of Sun Yat Sen — I wonder how much “traditional” Chinese culture he was exposed to (calligraphy, martial arts, taoism/buddhim/confucianism, etc.) He clearly was highly motivated to go back.

    Pierce’s notes indicate that the two ‘psychological’ novels written while in China were under the pseudonym “Forrest,” a play on his Chinese name. This got me to wondering: Why “Cordwainer” Smith? I took down my 1934 2nd ed. Webster’s unabridged dictionary, and found two definitions: 1. ‘worker in Cordovan leather’, and 2. (archaic) ‘shoemaker.’ For some reason, #2 seems a little more likely, but… why?

  • *If* “Allen” was Linebarger, he might just have been pulling a PsyOp on the therapist. Think about that for a moment.

    As you noted, “In the end, Allen breaks the spell for Lindner by admitting he made the whole thing up, although it’s unclear what he really believed earlier on.”

    What if the whole “obsession” on the part of “Allen” recounted by Lindner was in fact a [successful] method to “put the therapist into therapy” [i.e. role reversal]?

    I have not read all of the biographical sources but I have read both Nortrilla and The Instrumentality…” collection. One might interpret “the Instrumentality” with the “First and Second World” nations of his time and the “underpeople” made to serve them are Third World citizens. A simple straightforward interpretation.

    Yet some of the “magic” of speculative and / or fantasy writing for a reader is imagining the “what if” of the story rather than the dry [anemic?] psycho-therapeutic analysis which so much literary criticism depends upon.

    To me many of the old pulp writers [whom Cordwainer Smith was among the last] touched upon many “imaginary worlds” that many readers made real, At least in their own minds. {Think Sax Rohmer, Talbut Mundy, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, E.R. Burroughs… and even L. Frank Baum).

    In some cases the “fans” insisted that the authors continue writing about the characters which is why there are so many Conan, Fu Man Chu, Jimgrim/Ramsden, John Carter, and Oz stories. It may be that these “places” and/or “characters” strike some chord within their readers (we’re “wired” to respond to them?)

    One might say that a story is a clever lie, well told. On the other hand, Robert Heinlein towards the end of his life put in the mouth of one of his characters the idea of “Pantheistic Multiple-Ego Solipsism” which in effect means we’re all figments of each other’s imaginations… and that writers actually *do* create the places they write about.

    To me it seems that the “after-the-fact” psychological analysis of Linebarger [as Allen] maybe making truth out of hearsay and things that “tain’t necessarily so…”

  • Stimulating stuff all around. Unfamiliar with Allen or Smith I read Lindner’s original two-part piece in Harper’s, available on that magazine’s site in HTML or pdf. Some random thoughts in no particular order after this cram session. Allen’s claim to remember his own future is a remarkable expression, the implied process having nothing to do with ‘remembering’ as such. The Harper’s article would have made a great piece of highbrow pseudo-Borgesian pop fiction if it had been written exactly when it was. As things stand, it’s an interesting anecdote from analytic practice. Staying with this angle, Lindner’s story, at least as the original reads, had a bow on it which was a bit too pretty, and the commentator agrees that the most interesting parts of Allen’s cure, if true, have likely been withheld. Then again, perhaps all that was left was an innocent nostalgia for his symptom, parallels to which have been noted by the major analyst authors. As a note on the Smith-Allen connection, reviewers of his collected fiction note an uncanny command of chronologies, as if from stable worlds the author easily returns to. Lastly, this writer has become increasingly skeptical of Carl Sagan – there are too many dropped hints, sprinkled over a number of areas of anomalist inquiry, that Sagan’s professional debunking persona was just that, and he may have been a paid debunker, which no doubt exist, just as promotional personae (propagandists, bluntly) exist in the political realm. (See e.g. Armstrong Williams, certainly just one in a long line, for which see e.g. Terry Hansen.) I believe it was Budd Hopkins whom Phil Klass told in a moment of exasperation, ‘You’ll go to your grave without knowing the truth about UFOs.’ To Sagan’s point, though: If Mack had been delusional, surely at least some of patients should have been spontaneously cured, no? The Lindner-Allen story, whatever kind of story it is, after all provides the template.

  • Had a feeling this topic wouldn’t go quietly into that good, and, having spoken of altered states of reading, wondered if you’d read the book-in-progress (Prisoner of Infinity, on the blog) over at Auticulture?

  • Thanks Joel. That’s a great point about the imaginary worlds created by pulp writers, and how the fans clamored for them to continue.

    I think both writers and readers do in some sense create these stable realities. Tolkien, who I hope to write about in a future installment, called it “Faerie,” and his writings were really transcriptions of trance visitations to this dreamtime of his, which he then assembled like an editor.

    I share your doubt about much of Lindner’s narrative, or any ability to fully psychoanalyze Linebarger/Allen through it. It’s merely an interesting exercise, my main point being to show a separate type of creative response to a predecessor than the Bloomian “kill the father” model.


  • Thanks, MD.

    Regarding Sagan, what you suggest is certainly possible, but I tend to think his recalcitrance on paranormal subjects like UFOs and abductions had to do more with the usual desire for legitimacy (i.e., funding, etc.) as well as the specific ethical subtext of his whole life and work, which is that our salvation as a species is up to us. He was very sincere in this, I think. I do suspect his true beliefs on UFOs may have been more nuanced than he let on, but the most important point — implicit in all his writing — is we need to take responsibility for our future and our planet; the ease with which people could believe in ETs visiting us in the here and now deflates both his sublime cosmic vision and undercuts that sense of responsibility.

    I wrote about this a few years ago and would love your reaction:


  • I think you pointed up some of the contradictions of what you call Saganism very well in the earlier post. A couple of thoughts. After typing that bit above about Sagan, Hynek also came to mind, though in a different way. It seems perfectly plausible that after Hynek’s swamp-gas debunking effort was met with outrage and derision, certain interested groups or, yes, agencies, may have realized that it was much ‘cleaner’ to sow the seeds of self-censorship by making ufology unfashionable vis-a-vis, or just plain incompatible with, a quasi-religious faith in science. Hence Saganism, with one painfully obvious contradiction seemingly at its center, closely allied with scientism, and like other doctrinal -isms begetting, or at least necessitating heresies. (MD was not yet a gleam in anyone’s eye when Cosmos first aired, so Sagan’s personal biographical importance may vary.) And yet, the cultural exploration, at any rate, of space has never been able to advance without the constant return of this repressed, thus for instance this conversation. As to why UFOs should be officially heretical, I’m not even sure Richard Dolan has a working hypothesis that’s been well thought out. I might only suggest that ‘faith in ourselves’ is often historically tantamount to or identical with faith in the terrestrial powers that be.

    I think Knowles’ most recent post at Secret Sun (and its likely continuation, if I have any predictive power) combined with a reading of Prisoner of Infinity is a strong beginning to a rereading of our present mythos. Horsley makes a strong case for Whitley Strieber as, in his own way partaking of the ‘scientific sublime,’ ditto for transhumanism as religion or at least esoteric gnosis, and trauma as pervasive cultural motor & motif. I would say that you (and I, and probably Ahck and many more) have intuited this but the moment seems ripe for expanding upon those intuitions.

    Admittedly these thoughts on the subject are small-p protean, and I might venture more if I had better command of certain subjects.

  • Unsolicited update: Knowles did not, after all, go in the direction I suspected and instead has continued using Corsi’s ‘Day After Roswell’ as a roadmap, with an acknowledgment of its bedeviling errors, to post-WWII technological advances, or the lack thereof. Instead I remain more interested in where he stopped, the possible decline of science, and in what he calls the parallel ‘minefield of hoaxery and humbug’ (to me that probably includes the very book in question,) and the possibility that so much of scientism’s self-perpetuating narrative of continual advance in fact marks a real absence more than a substantive presence (no doubt a contentious proposition). If the narrative is hollow, we are really dealing with a religion of sorts, but I think that realization must prompt the question ‘What end is served by delusion?’

    In short, I’ve done it again, wandered back into UFOs when I said I wouldn’t and got rebewildered (this time by the grand narrative (they do exist) itself) to boot. It seems you’ve stayed away from UFOs for some time, but if you follow the tip on POI and don’t want to post about it, feel free to send me a line at the email address I post my comments with. That’s also real.

  • Thanks MD — A lot to respond to here. I haven’t been reading POI. I don’t have much time for blog-reading these days, but I did just catch up on Knowles’ (I don’t know where he gets the time to be so prolific!). I have very mixed feelings about the “decline of science” argument, which goes hand in hand with the “bankruptcy of materialism” narrative (that in just a few years went from being incisive critique to total unquestioned dogma among anomalist types). The problem is not with science as a way of knowing (i.e., testing hypothesis, imposing strict controls, replication, etc.) but with science as a social system; the latter is highly flawed, because it’s human, and thus you are bound to see the same kinds of problems (e.g., the replication issues Knowles mentions, as well as fraud) as in any other field of human endeavor. Science, religion, politics, business — what human project is without its gross imperfections and in dire need of overhaul?

    With the exception of a handful of retired scientists overselling what is really just a very useful tool as a total belief system (Dawkins types–and there are elderly zealots like that in every field), the over-selling of science is mostly committed not by scientists but by science journalists, and the examples Knowles cites in his Lucifer post are a product of a completely out-of-control science publicity machine that has grown in the last 20 years and exploded under social media. Science organizations and publishers nowadays feel competitive pressure to sensationalize all new articles in their journals. The result is deceptive over-hype of basic science findings and the gradual erosion of realistic science awareness by the public, and thus the kind of promises unfulfilled that could easily be misinterpreted as a collapsing bubble. I know how the science PR machine works because it used to be my job. It’s a big problem but it largely doesn’t reflect what real scientists do or how they think. Most scientists HATE precisely the kind of promises and hype that Knowles is talking about, because they know better and are much more humble about what they do and about what science can accomplish.

    I could write at length on this, and perhaps will some day, but basically: Science is at a time of needed course correction. But the real problem underlying all the dire ills Knowles writes about is money. All the problems with science can be traced back to the role money plays in every aspect of the process, from funding and tenure decisions to publishing. Well, money and ego. And guess, what, the same two things pervert politics and everything else humans do. Capitalism is arguably just one giant perversion, a cancer destroying our species and the planet. One need look no further, and certainly not to alien intervention or reverse-engineering, to explain the exponential growth of technology in the last century–exponential expansion/evolution/involution is what out-of-control systems (like cancers) do. (Although also note the fact that Knowles’ graphs of technological development have no meaningful Y-axis labels — what increase is being depicted, exactly? Amazingness? These are meaningless graphs, although Knowles’ basic point is real enough.)

    Science has long allowed itself to (partly) service this cancer, but so has religion, politics, etc. Whether there’s a realistic alternative, I don’t know, but at this point all humans on the planet are dependent for their survival on this toxic nexus, unless they happen to be the unlucky ones who are destroyed by it.

    That said, I love hearing Knowles’ take on science and technology, and I think the transistor thing is fascinating. I don’t quite share his level of paranoia, but it’s always interesting to see where he goes. I agree with him, there’s something to the Roswell story, but it’s not any of the narratives we’ve been sold and that the public have eagerly devoured.

    Re: UFOs, I’ll circle back at some point but I don’t think we’re going to make any headway on that problem until we figure the psi thing out, because as Vallee saw clearly in the early 70s, they are connected.


  • I agree with you in large part, and backed off a bit because I thought I might touch on something because of your (former?) career in science writing, but allow me to argue briefly that it might be more fruitful to meet directly the ills you list…

    Your critique of Knowles is quite fair (I also noticed the faultiness of the graph), and I was hoping for something quite different than another rehashing of the transistor story (for this I suggested another communication method) but I think you also touch tangentially on things I had more in mind – the question of participation in vs. manufacture of a zeitgeist. I just read or reread Messengers of Deception (I didn’t have a completion date listed for it, and it’s hard to tell sometimes because of the amount of material Vallee recycles), but I don’t think there’s anything in POI that Vallee does not at least mention. I think it is not an exaggeration to say that the necessary follow-up to that book has not been written in 35 years, perhaps until now.

    After reading it (it’s really a book in chapters, rather than a blog) a flood of ideas occurred to me, which can only have been in preparation for some time. One of those ideas is that more probably the UFO phenomenon cannot be understood without reference to recent and contemporary history. You mention money, and that may also be relevant – just how is obviously a longstnading mystery. These are the sorts of things I meant by ‘rereading the present mythos.’ It seems perfectly reasonable that other things in the zeitgiest are fueling scientific soteriology, with UFOs and their ‘representatives’ among the foremost. I believe these are the sorts of questions Vallee raises in his novel ‘Stratagem,’ which I have not read, as opposed to much having to do with – and here we might disagree at present – ‘the psi thing.’

    As food for further reflection on what scientists are doing vs. what scientific journalism is promising, read this

    for the confluence of science journalism or (what the author calls)’propaganda,’ money, domestic and transnational politics, as well as hard research. If you’re interested I can pass along a couple other things via email which bear more directly on my thinking.

  • P. S. As a final thought on Saganism, I wonder just who Vallee had in mind when he said in ‘Messengers of Deception:’

    What if [qualified scientists] discovered that some of the [UFO] phenomena were simulated by human trickery? To prevent such a scientific study from being organized, all that is needed is to maintain a certain threshold of ridicule around the phenomenon. This can be done easily enough by a few influential science writers, under the guise of “humanism” or “rationalism.”

  • Just briefly … Read Strategem. I’m a big fan of novels by non-novelists. Despite being not very good (as novels go), they reveal a lot about what the author really thinks. Vallee’s novels are no exception. He clearly thinks money is involved. I think there are also some playful attacks on other ufologists. Pay attention to the bird symbolism.

    Vallee’s love of the word “strategem” comes from his reading of Anthony Cave Brown’s book Bodyguard of Lies, a massive history of British disinformation leading up to the D-Day invasion. I only got partway through it but it is fascinating, and clearly influenced Vallee’s thinking in Messengers.

    And … yes, you might be right that Vallee is hinting about Sagan in that quote. I’m not sure who else he could possibly have meant, at that point in our culture. He casts a few barbs toward Sagan in his journals.

  • I didn’t like adding the first postscript but it’s pointless to mention ‘Strategem’ without saying that Vallee in an interview called it (I’m paraphrashing with fidelity to the sense) his ‘best guess’ at a solution and added that ‘you can say things in a novel that you can’t say in a work of nonfiction’.

  • Eric, I have read the two posts of yours which you mentioned in your comments – “Saganism” and “SETI, UFOs and Scientific Sublime”. They made me thought about some paradoxes characteristic to the “existential” (and a bit ecstatic!) scientism perpetuated by Sagan and ufology opponents.

    The main paradox of Saganist scientism is not only that its followers are driven by their irrationality – by ethical anxieties and esthetical sensibilities, as you have rightfully noticed – while pretending to be the paragons of Reason. This side of the scientism’s paradox is the one which is always noticed, and repeatedly emphasised, by its critics. There is another side to it, however, which is usually remain unnoticed: scientism seems to be distinctly Western way of thought; yet in fact, it covertly disentangles its Western roots and quickly moves towards the Eastern mysticism.

    Such description looks unusual, to put it mildly: the Saganist types are the ones who decry and despise New Agers’ attempts to synthesise the Western science with Eastern spirituality, aren’t they? Apparently, it is so; but some deeper analysis of scientism easily shows that it, in fact, hostile to the Western tradition of thought and friendly towards Eastern tradition of experience.

    To demonstrate it, it is vitally important to explain what I mean here by “Western” and “Eastern” traditions.

    Probably the most distinct feature of “Western” tradition is its belief in fundamental reality of (human) selfhood; as near-death experience researcher Pim van Lommel formulated it, “self as real and not as illusion”. This, in turn, naturally leads Western thinkers to maintain the inimitable uniqueness of personality, to glorify the fundamental significance of the individual. This personalism and individualism leads to several important consequences for the Western thought and culture.

    First and foremost, the validity of personhood brings the idea of its principal separation from (the rest of) the world, of its exceptionality, its transcendence from and beyond nature: the very idea of something (or someone) being “supernatural” (or “unnatural”) is “Western” idea. Consequently, it leads to rationalism and intellectualism, to the belief in the power and validity of human thought and reasoning, in its ability to uncover the hidden truth of reality, to bring knowledge not available to direct experience. In turn, the power of intellection gives birth to historicism and teleology, to the break from the cycles of decay and renewal and stepping on the linear path of progress, with each step of it bringing an unprecedented innovation.

    Another notable feature of “Western” thought is the belief in “Divine Intervention” – the direct action of a higher, super-human (but, at the same time, quite personalised) force which is interested in mankind and attempts to influence it. Such influence may be benevolent (“Angelic Assistance”, to call it so) or malevolent (“Demonic Interference”), but it still implies that some higher beings are deeply interested in humans and tries either to help or to harm them. So, “Western” thought have a tendency to interpret disastrous events as results of intentional actions, not just some impersonal regularities, and to positively evaluate the interpersonal conflict – the battle against (personified) hostile forces – as the mean of ensuring the progress and well-being of mankind.

    In its extreme form, “Western” tradition leads to the idea of “human exceptionalism”, of the chosen and exalted nature of mankind. In such case, its view of the world become deeply anthropocentric (if not actually anthropomorphic).

    The “Eastern” tradition is the opposite of the Western, since its fundamental feature is the idea of “no-self” state, of illusive and transitory nature of (human) selfhood; of cosmic insignificance of an individual (and of mankind in general).

    The consequences of this impersonalistic worldview are: dissolution of mankind in nature, absence of any boundary between “humane” and “natural”; primate of experience upon intellection, since the latter is full of intrinsic paradoxes and idiosyncrasies; bondage of humans to the ever-repeating cosmic cycles of death and rebirth, with nothing truly novel ever happening.

    The “Eastern” tradition also usually explains of suffering as the result of combination of man’s mistaken attitudes and impersonal regularities, with the intrapersonal correction and harmonisation with the world as prime method of obtaining happiness.

    “Eastern” tradition has an extreme of its own, which may be described as “cosmocentrism”: an anti-humanist erasure of any value of human personality, which must dissolve and disappear in the unity with the world.

    Well, let’s return to the Saganist scientism. Its main ideas are: the illusive nature of human psyche and personhood, which is just a result of neural functioning; the total insignificance of mankind compared to the colossal grandiosity of the cosmos; preference of postulated impersonal regularities as the cause of (social) events (with denouncing the arguments pointing to someone’s intentional actions as “conspiracy theories”); the decisive rejection of any teleology, with the world being a purposeless mechanism; etc.

    Such cosmocentric and impersonalistic positions are much more characteristic of “Eastern” thought, than of “Western” one… Even the apparent “rationalism” of scientism – its strongest link to the “Western” thought – disappears after closer scrutiny: adherents of scientism usually defend the anti-rationalist notion of “consensus science”, which substitutes arguments to reasoning and observation with the ones to authority and majority (of “experts”)…

    Eric, what do you think of this?

  • Hi Vortex,

    You’re right about the complexities of “Eastern” thought — as with “Western” thought, you can’t reduce it to any one view. What you’re calling the “anti-humanist erasure of human personality” etc. accurately captures much Buddhist thinking, which is why the Buddhists have found so much to love in neuroscience, and vice versa. I’m not fond of that trend in Buddhism because it does suck some of the life out of “enlightenment,” but I don’t share your distaste for what you’re calling cosmocentrism. In fact if I had to characterize my own philosophy, “cosmism” (a la the Russian tradition) would come pretty close. Science (in its broadest sense) must partner with mysticism in our species’ advancement and our salvation; it’s not the enemy, despite the current fashion of science-bashing.

    I also have to stand up for Sagan. He gets a bum rap among anomalists because of his famous dismissals of UFOs, which he largely reduced to the abduction phenomenon (the most iffy corner of ufology). But he was actually an open-minded guy about a lot of topics we would now call fringe (reincarnation, for example, and ancient astronauts). And even where he was skeptical, he was generally gracious in his skepticism, and critical of pseudoskeptics whose minds were made up before they examined the evidence. And because I’m a cosmist, I totally 100% share his sublime vision of our (insignificant) place in the vast, inconceivably complex cosmos. That, to me, is far, far more inspiring than the cozy pre-Copernican universe that somehow speaks our language and suits our preferences.

    But regardless of what we aesthetically prefer, we need to test our beliefs against something. That, to me, is all science (and materialism) mean: being rigorous and critical and not allowing our personal wishes to dictate our cosmology. There is an alarming amount of uncritical wish-fulfillment in the current anti-materialism backlash, as well as appeal to authority and intellectual hero-worship (as well as creating of false straw men, like some of Bernardo Kastrup’s caricatures of evil bad-guy neuroscientists trying to steal meaning away from us) — exactly the same problems that happen sometimes in mainstream science and everywhere else. Science is a conservative system of knowing — by design — so it is bound to resist some of the harder-to-test frontiers of human experience. That’s its job. Part of our job as anomalists is to win respectability for those frontiers, so that they might have a place in future science.

  • “In fact if I had to characterize my own philosophy, “cosmism” (a la the Russian tradition) would come pretty close. Science (in its broadest sense) must partner with mysticism in our species’ advancement and our salvation; it’s not the enemy, despite the current fashion of science-bashing.”

    About the cosmism… I was unable to found a free version of the George Young’s “Russian Cosmists” book, which is presented among the recommended literature on your blog, so I had to limit myself to the introductory pages available on Amazon. What surprised me while I was reading these pages is apparent author’s position that Nikolai Berdyaev was cosmist. As you have read the book in full length, I want to ask you: does its author present Berdyaev’s views as cosmist ones, or maybe I’m wrong and just made an hasty inference from too little data?

    If I’m right and Young indeed described Berdyaev’s thought as a form of cosmism, than his description is inaccurate: while Berdyaev did shared cosmists’ moral vision to some extent, and liked their anthropic eschatology, but he was skeptical, if not a bit cynical, about their worldview in general. Berdyaev was an anthropocentrist, for whom the secret of human soul was more valuable, and more important, than all the mysteries of cosmos; he was a most devout personalist with a staunch belief in eternal reality of personhood; and an “apostle of freedom”, who claimed that freedom precedes being itself. The term “cosmocentrism”, which I used in a previous comment, is originally a Berdyaev’s one; he used it as a negative description of the views that rejected the reality or importance of human personality and intended to dissolve it in the world. While I have a good share of disagreements with Berdyaev’s positions, I consider his philosophy to be one of the most powerful, masterful and eloquent expressions of what I, in my previous comment, described as a “Western” type of worldview.

    Well, many of Berdyaev’s works, such as “Freedom and Spirit”, were translated into English, so you can try to find and read them yourself (if you haven’t done it already)…

  • Hi Vortex,
    I went back and looked at Young’s chapter on Berdyaev. Young places him with the more spiritual/religious end of Cosmism, as opposed to the scientific. The rubric of “cosmism” is loose, clearly. As I’ve said elsewhere, I think Tarkovsky also is clearly cosmist, although Young doesn’t look at artists really.

  • Eric, here is a small addition to our iscussion of Western and Eastern spiritual traditions… I found two music videos that may be used a “hymns” – a ceremonic chants of a kind, a melodic and poetic summary – of these two distinct paths.

    Here is a hymn of Western ocuultism – Gnostic/Hermetic-type, personalist, progressivist, humanist, militant, rebellious:

    And here is a chant of Eastern esoterism – Buddhist/Taosit-type, impersonalist, permanentilist, naturalist, pacifist, accepting:

    Don’t you think that both lyrics and melody of these two songs can tell us, in a nutshell, of Western and Eastern magisteria of spirit?